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Howard Mortman on the future of new media

Saturday, May 17, 2008
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HH: Joined now by my fellow media fellow, Howard Mortman, of Extreme Mortman fame, www.extrememortman.com, producer in the old days for Chris Matthews on Hardball, and general man about media town. Howard, good to have you on campus. How did you enjoy your week as a media fellow?

HM: Well, my fellow fellow, I had a great time. Hoover runs such a great program here, and I can’t say enough great things. The weather, for the most part, has been wonderful, the palm trees, and now I have to go back to D.C., early flight tomorrow. So it’s good to be, I’m going to be kind of sad to be leaving here next week.

HH: A shot, give people the brief bio, Howard, how you ended up being Extreme Mortman, and your plunge into new media from old media.

HM: Oh, thank you, Hugh. I used to work for Nataional Journal’s the Hotline. I was the editor and a columnist for the Hotline for gosh, six and a half years. The Hotline, it’s kind of an inside the Beltway Bible of politics. We compile all that’s being said every day about politics. We cover the coverage. I was there, in the Hotline years, I got to be a senior citizen. I got to be in my early 30’s. And by that time, you know, it’s just what do you do, you have to mothball Mortman somewhere. They gave me this great column to write, and named after myself, which is a little head-scratching, Extreme Mortman. I’m not an extreme person, so it’s three-quarters irony, one-quarter Barry Goldwater in there. And it was one of the first online columns. So I wrote it very old style, seven hundred words, three times a week, where you built to a point at the end, the complete opposite of what blogging is now, where you have two sentences, you set it up and then you make your point and you move on. But this is the old style kind of writing, and I absolutely loved it. And after the Hotline, I went to work for Chris Matthews at Hardball for two years. My ears are still ringing from that experience.

HH: I think that’s when we first met, actually. Go on. It was in the course of doing some Matthews scream-fest or another.

HM: Right, exactly right. So after five or six thrown chairs at me later, I decided to leave. I actually then went to work at a government agency called the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which runs international broadcasting for America, Voice Of America, Radio Free Europe, Blanquita Cullum is on the board, a great conservative, Ken Tomlinson, brought me on there. And I worked there for two years, and decided as great as the mission was of international broadcasting, and as important as this was for American foreign policy in the war on terror, I loved the blogosphere, and I loved the online world. And I hooked up with this company I’m at now, called New Media Strategies, and that’s where we do online intelligence, online marketing, online information for clients.

HH: Now let’s talk a little bit about New Media Strategies, and then we’re going to come back to the political environment of 2008, because it’s exploding, and new media’s got a big play in that. What does New Media Strategies do? Who do they serve? Can you disclose your client list, that sort of stuff?

HM: Absolutely. Look, we have three main pillars of the kind of clients that we have. Our first pillar’s our oldest, and that’s our entertainment practice. We work on behalf of movie studios and TV shows to basically create online buzz. We look at, on behalf of Paramount, Buena Vista and some other top studios, and what we do is we tell them what the base is. Let’s say, you know, Pirates of the Caribbean was a move that we worked on. Spiderman 3 was a movie we worked on. We find out what people are saying about them, almost like a political campaign, in their base, what Spidey 3 fans want to see out of the next movie. We report back to the studios, they may or may not make adjustments in their script based on that, but we tell them what their fan base is talking about. And when the movies come out, we then try to create buzz online about it. Our second main pillar is our corporate practice, and this is where we work with businesses who have products that they’re launching, or brands they are promoting, some crisis communications, and we work with companies. The third pillar is the one that I head up, the public affairs practice. As the name applies, we work with political clients, folks with legislative issues for the Hill, issues or current events policies they’re trying to promote. And again, we find out what people are saying in the very act of political blogosphere, and we report back to our clients. And then we go online, sometimes, and we urge bloggers to write about X issue, or we go into comments and talk about these things.

HH: It’s fascinating, because you really got there early. The only other guy I know who has been there as long as you is Rob Neppell, who does Kithbridge, or www.truthlaidbear.com, and Rob and you are both believers in knowing what is being said about you before the world knows what’s being said about you to craft the message. How interested is corporate America becoming in this? Have you converted them yet? Because I’ve seen them get ambushed, oh, a dozen times.

HM: Yeah, and I’ll tell you, and I’ll do this real fast. You can, when a CEO, when the granddaughter of a CEO Googles his or her grandfather’s name, and sees page after page of trash written about them, that gets their attention. And when the word of mouth about a product…at lightning speed, if you treat the blogosphere as the world’s largest focus group, and one bad word sends products plummeting, it gets their attention.

HH: Is it New Media Strategies.com as well?

HM: www.newmediastrategies.net, actually.

HH: www.newmediastrategies.net.

HM: We’re that cutting edge.

HH: One of those online firms. There aren’t many others. Like I mentioned, www.kithbridge.com does a lot of this, but they’re more technical in terms of…you guys actually are kind of the classic PR firm in D.C. doing this. Has anyone else opened up a practice here?

HM: You know, that’s a great question. In D.C. alone, there are many companies that do part of this, that do either the intelligence side of it or the action side of it. Very few companies combine the two, if you get the intelligence, and then you take action on it. In D.C., knock on wood, fortunate that not many folks are in this space. There are traditional PR firms like Edelman or Ogilvy and so on, that have components of new media blogosphere at work, but we are a stand-alone. We don’t do online advertising, we don’t do traditional press release writing. Our world’s strictly the world of…

HH: Who else is over there with you, Howard?

HM: Well, I have to plug our CEO, Pete Snyder, who worked for Frank Luntz for a while.

HH: Sure.

HM: …and was Rudy Giuliani’s pollster for a while. We also have brought aboard, in my practice, Jon Henke, who worked for Mitch McConnell…

HH: Very smart guy.

HM: …and headed up, very smart guy, Jon Henke writes for Q & O, a brilliant fellow. His Democratic counterpart, a guy by the name of Ben Tribbett, who writes a great Democratic blog in Virginia called Not Larry Sabato, which is the blog that exposed the Macaca video, made that famous, and resulted in Harry Reid becoming the majority leader.

HH: Right.

HM: So Ben Tribbett has joined us. Soren Dayton…

HH: Sure, excellent talent, young…

HM: …is an excellent guy. He is formerly from the McCain campaign, knows how the blogosphere works, knows how to move messages. And then we have Leslie Bradshaw, who worked for the McLaughlin Group, and is just a master at Twitter, and some of the social media sites.

HH: You know what’s so interesting, Howard, I spent a lot of this week talking with a lot of the Silicon Valley guys who are in and around the place about new media, and a lot of people are thinking it’s old hat, and it’s all spent. You know, this was the first wave. This was like D-Day over the last six years. We got onto the beach of new media. It’s exploding now in ways that people just don’t think about, and it’s fascinating to be alive at this time.

HM: You know, it is, and it’s equally fascinating not to be working for the Washington Post these days, whose stock is plummeting, and who are doing buyouts. And Hugh, I mean, this is the way, this is my view of this explosive space. When you have 80% of reporters going online to blogs for story ideas, when you have David Broder, the dean of the Washington press corps, copying and pasting comments that he sees in Daily Kos, when you have 70% of top aides in Congress reading blogs to get their information, when you have folks like John Conyers, the Democrat from Michigan blogging himself at Huffington Post, there is something real going on here.

HH: You know, I’m always a little stunned by the reaction I get when I post, and I’ve been following the polar bear issue a lot. Not many people know about the polar bear issue, because I’m an endangered species lawyer when I’m not a broadcaster. I’m getting stuff from the Hill about it, “does it really work that way?” Yes, it really does work that way. So I think really, sort of democracy is becoming an input as opposed to an output exchange now, and that a lot of this is getting in there. On the other hand, people don’t know how to evaluate. Influence is a very difficult thing to evaluate. If you go to Truth Laid Bear or Kithbridge, you’ll see this ecosystem, which is a good representation, but doesn’t matter, 25,000 people are different depending on who they are.

HM: You know, if you were…and you’re right. And one thing you can’t do with this is software. You can’t write a software that can intelligently make sense of what people are saying. Right now, you’re drinking a Coke. Now let’s say you work for Coke, and you were presented a program that said somebody wrote on this blog, I would kill for a Coke, it could be, you know, do you report this to the CIA or to the FBI? Or is that a person that’s supportive of Coke. Well, we know that if there’s someone that kills for a Coke is someone who loves the product.

HH: Right.

HM: So you need the human eye to really go through it and see what all this…you know, 99% of it is white noise, what’s the one percent that matters for an entity, for a policy, for a campaign, for a client, and say this person is moving a message that you have to be aware of.

HH: You have to also be able to find the pattern in the noise. Now that’s something that the climate change people always bring up, that there’s a lot of noise, but you’ve got to find the pattern, and that does matter. You know, I’ve just posted from earlier today, Barack Obama gave an incredible press conference, one full of both naïveté, petulance and ignorance, including an amazing statement, I don’t know if we have it cued up for you, that he was defending his ‘I’ll sit down with Ahmadinejad’, and he said well, heck, we’ve been doing this in the 60’s, the 70’s, the 80’s, heck. When Kennedy met with Kruschev, we were on the brink of nuclear war. Well, of course, we weren’t. It was fifteen months before the Cuban Missile Crisis. And it’s one of those little moments. He’s a dummy, Howard. He’s a very eloquent dummy. But that’s the kind of thing that the Hotline would move, but it will be all over the world by tonight…

HM: Yeah.

HH: …that he does not know the basics of the Kennedy-Kruschev. It was because of the meeting, in fact. It made almost exactly the opposite point. Kruschev went to Vienna, pushed Kennedy around, thought I’ll be able to get away with putting missiles in, and so it makes almost exactly the opposite point, both factually and analytically that Obama made, and the media can’t hide that.

HM: Yeah, and Hugh, this is…what a great example of just the way a blogger, Hugh Hewitt, you know, top name radio talk show host, blogger, or even a smaller person who finds some tidbit somewhere, and makes a big deal out of it and tries to point out some hypocrisy, some twists, something that’s factually wrong, and keep on at it. Sooner or later, you’re going to get the attention of the big media, but the big media is not necessarily going to do the reporting on their own of it. It takes, you know, what did our friend, Glenn Reynolds says, an army of Davids.

HH: An army of Davids. You know, when I…I think maybe the last time, when did you leave Hardball?

HM: I left Hardball right…summer of 2004, so 2002-2004.

HH: Okay, you had already left when I went and did the Matthews Sunday show, and I brought up the fact that the fellow at CNN had got, Eason Jordan, had gotten into trouble. And I said he’s going to be gone. Chris Matthews didn’t know what I was talking about, Howard Fineman didn’t know what I was talking about, Katrina Vanden Heuvel didn’t know what I was talking about, Sam Donaldson didn’t know we were on the set. I went and talked the next day to Judy Woodruff, she had no idea what I was talking about. None of the old media people had any idea about a story that had exploded. Has that changed now, Howard Mortman?

HM: You know, when I worked for Chris, his interaction with the online world was checking Amazon to see how high his book was ranked. That was his knowledge. And having worked for Chris Matthews, boy does he get pummeled online, and people, just left and right.

HH: I like him, by the way.

HM: Yeah.

HH: He drives me crazy, but it’s not like Olbermann, who’s an idiot.

HM: Yeah.

HH: Matthews knows what he’s doing.

HM: No, you’re right, and look, I’ll tell you, and I disagree with him on everything, but I always respected him. And he is a patriotic American. I mean, his love of America is a kind of a weepy Peace Corps…

HH: Oh, Irish Catholic Boston guy, yeah. It’s so easy.

HM: Right, exactly. But you know, but he knows how to argue, he argues based on fact, and that’s a great example of him just being caught unawares by things that are percolating online, because he’s just not attuned, my recollection is that he’s not that attuned to what real news is anymore.

– – – –

HH: Prince Caspian opened, my friend, Jonathan Bock, runs Grace Hill Media. They do a lot of the new media push out, and the studios are way ahead of everybody else on new media. I’m interested that Hoover, which is kind of an old-line think thank, has begun this, you know, they want us here. They want us to come here and find them. I’m not sure that they’re caught up, yet, but they’re getting there. Howard Mortman, what do you think?

HM: Hugh, you’ve caught me on my hobby horse. I have been, I am a crusader, evangelist. I love Hoover. This is my fourth time doing this media fellowship, an I’ve done it in different incarnations in my media life. I’m now here as a blogger, as an online guy. God bless Hoover, I think they’re wonderful. You know, let’s first get them typewriters, and then we’ll figure out the blogging stuff. There’s so much great potential here, and if I could just spend thirty seconds, I love Hoover, I love them so much. I would love to get them up to speed. You know, there are different things you could do online, different ways. There’s so much talent here. I’m not talking about creating new content. I’m not talking about just compiling the Peter Robinsons of the world, the Victor Davis Hansons, people you’ve interviewed…

HH: Thomas Sowell, yeah.

HM: Thomas Sowell…just like what are they talking about every day, you know, just on the Hoover page? Get an advisory board of bloggers to support Hoover, and give them advice on how to tackle this. Next time there is some big idea like you know, two weeks ago, everybody argued over the gas tax holiday. Get a brilliant Hoover economist to host a forum, open source your policy, say what do you think about this, for or against, let’s talk about it, and I’ll pop in whatever Nobel economist they have, and that person will pop in every so often to kind of moderate the debate. I want to bring them up to speed, and I say this as a lover of Hoover.

HH: Yeah, I think they’re…Jeff Bliss knows what he’s about. I talked to Peter a lot about this. I think their communications commission is going to do that. But it really is, here’s a place, like AEI, and on the left, there’s some places like this, too, where all the content in the world is, but it’s trapped in an old media world, and it’s got to find, it’s got to be like Old Faithful, geyser out.

HM: You said the left. They are brilliant. The left knows how to do this. The Center For American Progress and others…

HH: Right.

HM: …know how to combine the think tank with the action. They know how to hire the right bloggers, how to get their messages out, test messages. They know that reporters are reading them for the tea leaves of what will be said in the Democratic primary three days from now, is appearing right now.

HH: Quick exit question, who’s got the most interesting space right now? Is it the Atlantic Monthly? Is it National Review? Is it, of course, Townhall.com, we think, but who do you think’s got interesting spaces out there?

HM: I have to say this as a former Hotliner, now owned by Atlantic. The Atlantic rocks. They do everything the best. But actually, honestly, I think National Review online does a wonderful job of, at least judging by their Drudge hits of getting attention…

HH: Yeah, Geraghty’s way ahead of the crowd, and we’re pleased to have him on here.

HM: Yeah.

HH: Howard, great to see you, thanks for spending time with us, and hopefully, we’ll connect back out at Hooverland some other time in the future.

End of interview.

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